This year’s Shanghai auto show highlights the global industry’s race to make electric cars Chinese drivers want to buy, as Beijing winds down subsidies that promoted sales. Auto Shanghai 2019 is being held from Thursday, April 18, to April 25. The Chinese government is shifting the burden to carmakers by imposing mandatory sales targets for electric cars, adding to financial pressure on them amid a painful sales slump. Chinese purchases of pure electric and hybrid sedans and SUVs soared 60 per cent last year to 1.3 million – half the global total – but overall auto sales shrank 4.1 per cent to 23.7 million. Buyers of electric cars were lured with subsidies of up to 50,000 yuan (US$7,400) a car, but that support was cut by half in January and ends next year. “Competition is getting more fierce,” said industry analyst Paul Gong of UBS. Beijing has been promoting electric cars for 15 years in hopes of cleaning smog-choked Chinese cities and gaining an early lead in a promising industry. Ford switches to ‘China speed’, plans 10 new-energy vehicles for world’s largest auto market over the next three years General Motors, Volkswagen, Nissan and other global majors are developing models to suit Chinese tastes. They have money and technology, but local rivals have experience – brands including BYD Auto and BAIC Group have been selling low-priced electric cars for a decade. At the Shanghai show, which opens to the public on Saturday, carmakers plan to display dozens of electric cars, from luxury SUVs to micro-compacts priced under US$10,000. They aim to compete with petrol-powered models on performance, cost and looks. By the end of next year, “it will be very difficult for a customer to decide against an electric car”, said the chief executive of Volkswagen, Herbert Diess. “The cars will offer roominess, space, fast charging,” Diess said during a January visit to Beijing. “They will look exciting.” Carmakers are looking to China, their biggest global market, to drive revenue growth at a time when US and European demand is flat or declining. That gives them an incentive to cooperate with Beijing’s campaign to promote electric cars. This week, General Motors is unveiling the first all-electric model in Buick’s China-only Velite range, which includes a hybrid based on the Chevrolet Volt. VW will display a concept SUV as part of plans to launch 50 electric models by 2025. Daimler is finalising plan to make all-electric, 5G-enabled Smart micro cars in China for export with largest shareholder Geely Nissan Motor and its Chinese partner will display the Sylphy Zero Emission, an all-electric model designed for China that went on sale in August. BYD Auto will display an all-electric sedan with an advertised range of 400 kilometres on one charge. Pressure to shift to electric cars is “more an opportunity than a threat” to Chinese carmakers, said UBS’s Gong. Latecomers to petrol-powered vehicles, Chinese brands account for just 10 per cent of global sales, mostly in low-price tiers, Gong said. But they account for 50 per cent of electric car sales worldwide. “In the EV world, Chinese companies started earlier and reacted faster,” said Gong. Beijing has spent billions of dollars on research grants and incentives to buyers. State-owned power companies have blanketed China with 730,000 charging stations, a vastly larger network than any other country. China cuts electric car subsidies by up to 60 per cent as it looks to improve technological standards to global levels Meanwhile, carmakers are struggling to revive sales of traditional SUVS, minivans and sedans that fell last year for the first time in three decades. A trade war with Washington and weakening economic growth made jittery consumers reluctant to commit to big purchases. That skid worsened this year. First-quarter sales shrank 13.7 per cent from a year earlier. Despite that, people in the industry say Chinese sales could top 30 million vehicles a year by 2025. Ford relaunched its China operation this year after 2018 sales plunged 37 per cent. The company blamed an ageing product line-up. Global brands are linking up with Chinese partners with experience at low-cost production. Ford has an electric venture with Zotye Auto. GM and its Chinese partners plan 10 electric models by next year. Mercedes-Benz launched the Denza brand with BYD. VW’s electric joint venture, SOL, started selling an SUV last year. Under the new system, carmakers must earn credits for sales of electric cars equal to at least 10 per cent of purchases this year and 12 per cent in 2020. Carmakers that fall short can buy credits from competitors that exceed their targets. Regulators said targets will rise later. An electric car’s sticker price in China is still higher than a petrol model’s. But charging and maintenance cost less. Industry analysts say owners who drive at least 16,000 kilometres a year save money in the long run. China’s biggest SUV brand, Great Wall Motors, has responded to the sale quotas by launching an electric brand, Ola. Its R1 compact, while looks like a toy beside Great Wall’s hulking SUVs, went on sale in December priced as low as 59,800 yuan after the subsidy. Beijing, pushing its electric vehicle market, is making it harder for start-ups to enter as it fights overcapacity In a move to spur competition, Beijing lifted ownership restrictions on electric carmakers last year. Tesla responded by announcing plans to build its first factory outside the United States in Shanghai. Official ambitions clash with the Chinese public’s love of bulky SUVs, seen as the safest option on crowded, bumpy streets. But sentiments are shifting. A UBS survey found 71 per cent of Chinese buyers are willing to try an electric, up from 58 per cent a year ago. The rates for the US and Europe were below 20 per cent. “Customer willingness is always higher in China,” said Gong.